DoD Overseas Labs Do Invaluable Research, Yet Remain Undervalued, Underfunded

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Arlington, VA — The Armed Forces Research Institute of Medical Sciences (AFRIMS) in Thailand ran the world’s largest HIV vaccine trial from 2003-2009.

The Naval Medical Research Unit 3 in Egypt detected the first human case of Avian influenza in Egypt in 2006.

Other invaluable contributions to world health from DoD labs include the first vaccine for Japanese encephalitis virus, the first isolation of the Rift Valley Fever virus, the first identification of new strains of dengue fever in Peru and the demonstrated efficacy of several drugs to treat and prevent malaria.

So, why are these labs “undervalued” outside of the research community, “poorly appreciated” by Congress and the executive branch and constantly beset with funding uncertainty?     

A newly-released report, “The Defense Department’s Enduring Contributions to Global Health — The Future of the U.S. Army and Navy Overseas Medical Research Laboratories” set out to answer those questions. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) examined DoD medical research laboratories in Cambodia, Egypt, Kenya, Peru and Thailand, finding that  the labs have made important contributions to public health yet remain “surprisingly under recognized and undervalued.” The CSIS team of researchers was led by retired Army Lt. Gen. James Peake, who also is a former U.S. Army Surgeon General and former VA Secretary. 

More Funding, Recognition

Because their work has been instrumental in controlling diseases around the world (e.g., demonstrating the efficacy of malorone, primaquine and weekly tafenoquine to treat malaria), the labs  are perceived as important assets by their host countries, the report stated.

The labs include the U.S. Army Medical Research Unit in Nairobi, Kenya; the Armed Forces Research Institute of Medical Sciences in Bangkok; the U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit 3 in Cairo; NAMRU-6 in Lima, Peru; and NAMRU-2 Pacific, temporarily headquartered at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. A sixth laboratory, U.S. Army Medical Research Unit Europe, in Heidelberg, Germany, conducts psycho-social research; and the precursor to a new U.S. Army laboratory, the Central Public Health Reference Library, opened in March in Tbilisi, Georgia.

“Through their extensive capacity-building activities, their reliance on locally-hired research personnel and their focus on diseases of local relevance, the Army and Navy laboratories have become integrated in the public-health efforts of their host nation,” according to the report.

Yet, the authors also said these labs have “too few champions” within the upper ranks of Army and Navy Medicine and in the senior leadership of DoD and Congress.

“There are a number of reasons for this limited domestic support,” the authors wrote. “The laboratories lack a targeted and strategies plan for outreach and communications; and their remote locations, small number of personnel, and diminutive fraction of the U.S. defense budget make it all the harder to garner attention and cultivate champions in Washington.”

Lack of communication about the labs’ “success stories” contribute to “persistent funding uncertainty” and put the facilities at risk of having to cut back research programs, according to the report. The budget of four of the most active overseas labs, not including personnel costs, was in aggregate $100 million, and that is contingent on a variety of sources including grants, cooperative research agreements with federal entities, universities and private industry and competitive proposals to DoD sponsors, study authors pointed out.

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